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photo of jane corbinon the weapons trail - a talk with bbc reporter jane corbin

Jane Corbin has been reporting on the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction for 14 years. In 1990, in FRONTLINE's "The Arming of Iraq," she broke the story of how western companies and governments had armed Saddam throughout the 1980s. In 2003, Corbin was granted exclusive access to follow the Iraq Survey Group -- a U.S.-led coalition group numbering more than 1,000 military and intelligence specialists -- as it scoured post-war Iraq for WMD. In this interview, conducted on Jan. 14, 2004, Corbin talks about the ISG's frustrating and difficult work, how long it will take, what's been found to date, and what's at stake in getting to the bottom of what Saddam had -- or didn't have.

President Bush gave a television interview about a month ago in which he seemed to say that, with Saddam Hussein now captured, actually finding his weapons no longer mattered. And polls in the U.S. indicate that most Americans also don't seem to care whether the weapons are discovered or not. In your interviews with the weapons hunters now in Iraq, what is their opinion on the issue of getting to the bottom of whether there were WMD or not?

I think as the months have gone on, they have noticed that the politicians don't talk so much about it anymore, and that perhaps their task is not a top priority. But for the weapons hunters themselves, I think they still do believe it's important to get to the bottom of it.

First, there is the whole issue of proliferation, the spread of these weapons across the world -- nuclear, biological and chemical. If there are other proliferators out there -- and we know, for example, that North Korea has plans in this direction, [as well as] Iran, Syria and Libya -- then what sort of message does it send to those regimes if the West declares war because of the weapons of mass destruction, and then never finds them? Or never makes a concerted effort to back up their words with the proof? So, it's about the message you send to other would-be proliferators -- that's what the weapons hunters would say is one of the important reasons you get to the bottom of it.

And secondly, if you don't get to the bottom of it, and if perhaps he did have weapons of mass destruction, and you don't know where their parts went, or the know-how, or the scientists, or the seed stocks of biological agents -- they could be anywhere. They could be in the hands of terrorists, they could be in the hands of would-be proliferators.

And, of course, there's the important political reason that even if President Bush seems to indicate it no longer matters, it certainly matters for a lot of people in the Arab world. They feel very strongly that the West declared war on another Arab state for reasons of weapons of mass destruction, and they're rather angry that these haven't been found so far.

So, to satisfy public opinion in those countries, and perhaps the way that politics work out in the future, it is important to come up with some answers.

How long do the weapons hunters expect it will take to get to the bottom of it?

I think it's a moving target. At the end of the war, they thought it would just be a couple of weeks. They then began to massage expectations and talk about six months. And now David Kay is talking about needing another nine months -- that's from October 2003 -- which would take us to next summer, more than a year after the end of the war.

But around a year was [the answer] most people gave on the ground, and what the politicians, I think, had in the back of their minds. But, of course, we haven't gotten to the end of it, and we're now eight months in. I think it will take years if they really want to find out what happened to them, whether they existed. And if they didn't exist, why Saddam Hussein and his regime didn't come clean with the inspectors.

David Kay, who heads up the ISG, describes the search as being a "tough puzzle." Can you give an example of what he means by this, what their investigation involves?

I can give you two examples: one serious and one rather amusing. The ISG team was on a mission to raid an Arab scientific bureau in Baghdad, where they were looking at records of procurement of what this company -- which on the front of it was a pharmaceutical company buying baby products and medicines --what this company was really up to. And they found that beneath all the veneer, they were buying into Iraq 500 tons of nitric acid, a highly volatile chemical.

Now, nitric acid is the basic ingredient in rocket fuel for long-range missiles, which is one of the things that the ISG is looking for, because long range missiles can carry biological, chemical and nuclear warheads. So, they found this order for 500 tons, but that's just one tiny piece of the puzzle. They have to know: What was it used for? Did it actually ever come into the country through this front firm? Where did it go then? Did it go to a factory, to a military base? Finding a clue is not the end of the road. It's just one piece in a much, much bigger puzzle.

Now, on the amusing side, I think one of the real difficulties that they had in putting together this puzzle is the conflicting evidence they've been given by Iraqis on the ground. The weapons inspectors told me [about] a very frustrating day when they went out to the desert. They'd been absolutely assured by the local sheik of the area that there was a huge cache of chemical weapons hidden in his backyard. He knew exactly where they were. He led this huge team to them. They all got to work with the bulldozers. And the sheik stood there and said, "If you don't find these weapons in the hole when you dig it, I will sell my own mother."

They dug a huge hole. There were no weapons. Meanwhile, the sheik had quietly disappeared. They just don't know. Why did he swear on his honor that he knew those weapons were there? Was it a deliberate attempt at disinformation? Was he telling them what they wanted to hear? One of the very frustrated hunters who had been searching for these things in temperatures of 110 degrees said to me, "You know, maybe he just wanted a big fish pond in his backyard, and it was a good way of getting the Americans to come around and dig a hole for him."

That's an amusing story. But they are encountering these kind of very bizarre situations every day, where Iraqis come to them with so-called good information: they "saw an officer of Saddam personally burying these weapons." They look; they don't find.

What's been the ISG's biggest coup to date?

I think the biggest success is chasing down the long-range missile program. These are not weapons of mass destruction in and of themselves, but they are delivery systems for such weapons. And they have discovered that Saddam Hussein was building them against U.N. resolutions which only allow the development of missiles up to 150 kilometer range. Saddam had plans, designs and big teams working on missiles that would have gone 1,000 kilometers, which is truly breaking the limits imposed.

And the ISG has discovered not only that Saddam Hussein had a family of missiles on the drawing boards, but also that he had paid ten million pounds for forbidden missile technology from North Korea. So, obviously, he was committed to recreating his missiles, which were being destroyed after the first Gulf War.

But were the missile programs which were found likely to have been a threat to the West?

We spoke to one engineer involved in these programs and his view was that Saddam Hussein's regime wanted them as a deterrent - to use against Iran, Iraq's historical enemy and also Israel. They claimed there were no non-conventional warheads being designed - chemical or biological. But of course there is no proof of that. We do know, however, that Saddam in the past had wanted to acquire such weapons to give him power in the region and in particular to counter Iran. They were not likely to have been a threat to the West although the British government did argue, before the war, that they could have been used against British bases in Cyprus within the planned missiles' range.

What did it take for you to obtain the exclusive access to follow and film the ISG's search for WMD programs and capability?

I've been covering the story of Saddam's non-conventional weapons since 1989, when I made my first film about his rocket program. This was before the first Gulf War. I also broke the story -- and this was shown on FRONTLINE -- of Saddam's secret arms ring. He had used a network of western companies in America, Britain and Europe to create a nuclear program during the 1980s.

So, I have a history of looking at this and uncovering it. And a lot of the weapons hunters who joined the ISG -- namely, of course, David Kay himself -- date back to this time. So I've worked with them over many years, and I did know them well. And perhaps they felt that given that background, I understood the issues at stake, and that I would do a fair job.

I have to say when I began this film, none of us knew how it would work out. Would they find them, or wouldn't they? And it's been really interesting to follow it through it's frustrating moments and sometimes it's exhilarating moments as well.

And if, and when, the question is finally answered on what exactly was Iraq's WMD capability, you'll be reporting on that too, one assumes.

I think we'll all need that, won't we? Because if the weapons do materialize, we'll be able to tell the story of how they were hidden. And if they don't materialize, perhaps when Saddam Hussein has been in captivity for somewhat longer, and when others have been rounded up, we'll get the real story of what happened after the first Gulf War when they destroyed their program. Why did they never come clean about it? What were they up to? And perhaps we'll be able to get closure on it.

In the dramatic months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, you had been on the ground there following the U.N. weapons inspectors under Hans Blix's leadership, and they were under pressure to find evidence in this pre-invasion period. Were there aspects of the story which were under-reported at that time?

I think people -- and I think I would include myself in this -- we all underestimated the so-called fear factor that made people afraid to tell the truth and to come forward and reveal things. I really believe that this was at the heart of this mystery. That here are people who have suffered under a dictatorial regime for 30 years, and who have seen their own families betrayed by family members. And I think no one speaks, or spoke, about anything in Iraq lightly. And I feel that this whole sort of law of fear and silence still rests very heavily on the Iraqis. It's one of the reasons that the ISG hasn't been able to get to the bottom of things.

I think we all in the West underestimated this. We underestimated it when we tried to make an assessment of what was there, and what people thought and what people were saying, and whether it was true. And we still underestimate it now today, even though Saddam Hussein has been captured. The extent to which people in that country are so fearful of talking, it's almost like a sort of in-built reaction. It has little to do with the regime itself, which is effectively smashed, although obviously quite an effective resistance is in its place.

I think it's more to do with people's own innermost fears, the kind of regime they lived through. It's a huge psychological legacy and challenge for turning this country around.

At this point, what are the big questions still remaining?

What went on in Saddam's mind if he didn't have them? What did he think he was doing when he played cat and mouse with the inspectors, when the war was on his doorstep at the 11th hour and he still didn't either go into exile or come clean and say, "I never had them, and here's the proof"? Of course, he kept saying he never had them. But the way he behaved with U.N. inspectors, the way that he failed to come up with the records of destroying, as he claimed, previous stockpiles of these agents, chemical and biological. It all led to a suspicion that he had them.

Now, the big question is, was that deliberate? Did he want people to be afraid to think he had them? And was it just a huge miscalculation? Because, in the end, it's what pushed America and Britain over the brink into invasion. Perhaps he could have saved himself. But, why didn't he? Why didn't he actually tell the truth? And why didn't he convince the West of the truth?

There is speculation that David Kay will be resigning before the ISG's mission is completed.

I think David Kay reportedly is unhappy because some of the intelligence assets -- which, of course, are at the core of the ISG, with many analysts and translators actually working out there -- their time has been diverted to hunt, obviously, for the insurgents who are causing the deaths of so many American soldiers.

So, I think he feels that those assets are being whittled away. And how can you do the job? And this is at the heart of his unhappiness.

My understanding is that if he does resign, which may well be for family reasons, if he does resign, then it's possible that George Tenet, the director of the CIA, will find a replacement for him, because David Kay's title is advisor to George Tenet, the CIA director. And there may be another one following on to him, who may try to, as it were, clear up the loose ends and try to draw the whole thing together and to come to some sort of conclusion.

But I definitely got the impression when I was last in Iraq with the ISG that the whole hunt for the weapons of mass destruction was effectively running out of steam. The politician's eye, the public's eye was turned elsewhere -- certainly in America, less so in Britain.

Hans Blix, the former U.N. head inspector, himself told me that he thought the politicians would prefer to disappear, as he put it, under a cloud of smoke or mist and not to have a conclusion. Better to have no conclusion than one that didn't suit them. That was certainly his view.

How crucial has been David Kay to the ISG's investigations?

The CIA talked about him as being their ramrod. He was the man who was going to put back "burn" and purpose into the hunt. And he certainly did that. Very effective on the ground, very tough. Knows his job. And a true believer. He had said many times before the war that he believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I think without him it could carry on, but it certainly won't have quite as colorful or as vocal a leader.

I asked him whether, if there was nothing at the end of the day, no WMD, would he be prepared to admit it. And he said, "Well, so be it, if that is the case." But his view is that the hunt will have been so thorough -- and that has been true, as I watched them, they have been incredibly thorough -- there won't be room for anyone to say, "Well, you didn't do it properly, you didn't look properly." They will have been so thorough that if they come to the conclusion there was something, then they will be believed, because they will have done the ground work.

And if they come to the conclusion there was nothing, then it will also be believed because they will have done the work necessary to prove it. But at the moment he is not prepared to say that they have reached that point. He is only prepared to say that if they reach that point, he will admit it.

Editor's Note, Jan. 23, 2004: It was announced today that David Kay is being replaced by Charles Duelfer a top Iraq weapons inspector for UNSCOM from 1992-2000. Earlier this month, Duelfer told NBC News that he doubted biological and chemical weapons would be found in Iraq.


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posted january 22, 2004

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